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The Beat Frequency Method

Theremin for the Sonic Explorer

an unconventional approach
to creating electronic music
on a unique and venerable
electronic instrument

by Gordon Charlton
Contents

Caveat Lector

Preface

The Instrument

The Player

Concerning Consonance

The Troglodyte and The Theremin

The Shape of a Sound

A Portable Cave

A Second Voice

Frothatrills and Twangulators

Panic Box and Whistle Pig

Painting Narrative Soundscapes

Afterword
Caveat Lector

This document is not intended for the


classical thereminist. It does not contain
any advice about melodic playing. It does
contain suggestions which are contrary
to accepted wisdom and which may not
be compatible with classical technique.
Preface

I bought my first theremin on a whim, knowing the sound


from old science fiction movies and intrigued by the notion of
playing an instrument without physical contact.

As a melodic instrument it presents a formidable challenge,


requiring excellent pitch discrimination and a great deal of
practice simply to play in tune before one even starts to think
about playing well. The majority of tutorial material is focussed
on this goal and advocates ear training, rote and classical
tuition.

Such ear training as I had; the record collection I listened to


over and over as a teenager, forming my musical understanding
and taste, was not melodic – I listened to old school industrial
and electronic music, punk rock, experimental recordings,
strange excursions away from the mainstream. In short, the
unconventional.

I enjoy figuring out things from first principles and learning


through exploration more than I enjoy the student-teacher
relationship or learning by rote, so I set myself a different
challenge, to rediscover the theremin as an unconventional
instrument, to find ways to take best advantage of its unique
user interface and to make the sort of music I know best.

But how can we model invisible, intangible fields? How can we


learn to interact with them meaningfully? How would music
have developed if the theremin had been the first musical
instrument? How can we draw on our other creative skills and
apply them to a different field? How can we achieve this with
simple tools? These questions are the basis of my explorations.
The Instrument

The theremin is a very simple synthesizer, consisting of two


parts; an oscillator and an amplifier; the first to generate an
audible frequency and the second to adjust its amplitude. Each
of these is controlled via a variable capacitor, each consisting of
two conductors, one fixed and one variable. The fixed
conductors are the pitch rod and the volume loop, and the
variable conductors are the corresponding hands of the player,
the pitch hand and the volume hand.

Additional synthesizer functionality is achieved by dexterous


manipulation of the hands within the electrical fields
surrounding the rod and loop. As it is not possible to see or feel
these fields it will be helpful to have a model of their behavior
when we move within them and an idea of their shape.

The fields are not static, they change as you move; both your
hands and the rest of your body. Consider a jug mostly full of
water. This corresponds to, say, the pitch field (the volume field
is the same.) The top of the water corresponds to the lowest
note, the bottom of the jug to the highest note. Notes are
spaced relative to these two points. So a particular note is, say,
two thirds of the way down the water. To play that note
requires you to reach into the jug, which causes the water level
to rise, so the note is always two thirds of the way down, but
where that is exactly depends on the mass of your arm - a larger
volume (corresponding to an object that can accept a lot of
charge) causes the water to rise more, spreading the notes out,
and a smaller volume alters the water level less, moving the
notes less. So, for example, very slow, controlled, minute
changes in pitch are best made by extending one or two fingers
only, after moving the body closer to the rod.
The field around the pitch rod is roughly cylindrical around the
rod, with a hemispherical dome over the top like a glass dome
clock, and with the notes arranged like the layers of an onion,
or a Russian doll, the higher notes being closer to the rod.

In a little more detail, the field pinches in towards the top and
bottom of the rod, so it is usual to keep the pitch hand mostly
at a height about half way up the pitch rod. In an idealized
theremin the notes would all be evenly spaced within the field,
like the notes on a piano keyboard – this is called linearity. In
practice there is always some deviation from linearity, with the
notes getting closer together the higher in pitch they are, like a
stringed instrument such as a violin or guitar.

Additionally the notes get closer together around the very


lowest notes. This is because the audio oscillator of the
theremin derives its tone from the difference between two
radio frequency oscillators, one which generates a constant
frequency, and one which is varied by the proximity of the
pitch hand to the pitch rod. As the frequencies of the two RF
oscillators become closer the audio frequency gets lower and
the two oscillators interact and pull towards the same
frequency (which ultimately results in silence – this part of the
pitch field is called the zero beat zone.)

The field around the volume loop is likewise composed of


concentric layers, with the loudest sounds being furthest from
the loop. This time the layers are oval, like a rugby football
planted point up in the volume loop. The key feature to note is
that the layers are more widely spaced above the volume loop,
allowing more subtle control of volume, and more closely
spaced to the side of the loop, allowing more rapid changes in
volume.
The Player

As described above, the theremin player is literally a part of


the theremin circuit, so can be considered as a part of the
instrument, with the disposition of the whole body, not just
the hands, affecting both pitch and volume. Pitch in particular
is sensitive to minute movements in either the theremin or the
player, and this can impact negatively on a performance when a
note that should be unvarying in pitch wanders perceptibly. To
minimise this, both the theremin and the player should be as
wobble-free as possible. For the player this means adopting a
stable stance and practicing the necessary skill of standing still.

I suggest using the postures adopted by either Peter Pringle or


Barbara Buchholz. Both have this in common, that they are
similar to stances used in martial arts; tai chi and karate
respectively. Assuming a right handed player – it is strongly
recommended that pitch be played with the dominant hand –
the Pringle stance involves pointing the right foot towards the
pitch rod with the knee slightly bent and the left foot
perpendicular to the right foot and about the same distance
away from it as the width of one’s shoulders, leg straight and
back straight. This stance permits controlled movement of the
body towards the pitch rod, which can be used to overcome
non-linearity in the higher notes.

The Buchholz stance is more powerful, placing the player in a


dominant position over the theremin, encouraging a more
assertive playing style. For this the feet should both point
towards the theremin, and be a shoulder width apart. Both legs
are very straight, body leaning forwards with the back arched
inwards, locking the knees in position and making the legs
rigid. It is better suited to players with a lower centre of gravity.
The disposition of the pitch hand varies from that adopted by
the majority of classical, melodic players. I suggest holding the
pitch hand as if holding a pen, thumb and forefinger touching
the base of the sternum, and drawing a horizontal arc from the
centre of the chest to the pitch rod. I suggest the same
disposition as that used in handwriting because that is an
activity that requires a steady hand and fine motor control with
which the player is undoubtedly familiar. The upper arm should
be straight down, or thereabouts. The volume hand should be
above and towards the closer edge of the loop, with the elbow
raised and forming a right angle to reduce the transfer of
vibrations from the volume hand to the rest of the body,
affecting the pitch. The muscles should be relaxed.

The correct stance will minimise movement to a certain


extent, but it will not eradicate it. The primary key to all
theremin playing is audio feedback. The player should be
focussed on the sound at all times, and over time will develop
the appropriate hand-ear coordination, just as a person learns
to balance a bicycle effortlessly over time from wobbly
beginnings. For long steady notes audio feedback can be
augmented with visual feedback, by looking past the thumb
and forefinger of the pitch hand and keeping them steady
relative to a distant object, as one might sight along the barrel
of a rifle.

It is advisable to always start playing from the same stance, and


at the same distance from the theremin, and to tune the pitch
field so that the same low note (or silence) is achieved when
the pitch hand is furthest from the pitch rod, for consistency.
The advanced method is to tune so that the a consistently
repeated hand movement causes a known change in pitch. This
is called tuning to an interval.
Concerning Consonance

The theremin is a continuous pitch instrument in a musical


world dominated by consonance, wherein lies the challenge
faced by the classical thereminist; of playing specific pitches to
a high degree of precision, which is a time consuming business.

Consonance is an acoustic phenomenon; when enough of the


various frequencies composing two or more sounds coincide
the sounds fuse into a single, more complex sound in a
harmonious manner. Sounds created by vibrating columns of
air, or by vibrating strings, for instance, are made up of
frequencies which are in simple ratio to one another, so
consonance is likely to be chanced upon readily by any
experimenter, and figured in the very earliest music, dating to
the dawn of civilization. One can imagine cavemen knocking
rocks against each other rhythmically, and noticing that certain
rocks sound more pleasing than others. In Western culture this
was studied by Pythagorus using the mathematics of rational
numbers, which formed the basis of music theory. This had the
dual effect of opening up many avenues of research into
harmony, and of revealing some of the hidden complexities of
the system. While research continues to this day in the form of
microtonal systems, the common practice in Western music is
a compromise which approximates consonance while giving the
composer a great latitude within the system.

By abandoning consonance in order to explore the potential of


the theremin as a continuous pitch instrument we move from
rational numbers to the mathematics of real numbers; calculus
and its geometric cousin, trigonometry, and we consider other
acoustic phenomena which have a lesser standing in
conventional Western music.
The Troglodyte and The Theremin

As we can imagine our cave dwelling forebears chancing upon


musically interesting rocks, so we might imagine one of them
chancing, inexplicably, upon a theremin. Without dwelling on
the unlikelihood of this event we shall proceed to wonder,
rhetorically, what he would do with it, and answer; he would
take it back to his cave to investigate it.

This is fortuitous, as caves abound with interesting acoustic


phenomena and cavemen knew about the acoustic properties
of caves. In certain places in caves they painted stampeding
mammoths and left a small pile of rocks. In these places the
echoes of the rocks knocked together reverberate like a herd of
stampeding mammoths. In long, narrow passageways they
discovered resonant nodes, places where the right sung note
builds up on itself and becomes louder, and here they marked
the place with small dots on the top of the tunnel wall. And
what better tool to explore cave acoustics than an instrument
that can generate any frequency at any volume and for any
duration.

So, as the rock musicians are discovering the fundamental unit


of a music based on rational mathematics, the note – a sound
of fixed pitch, our early thereminist will move his hands within
the fields, finding sounds of varying pitch. He will consider the
pitch at the start and end of a stroke, and also the speed of the
stroke, and the way it accelerates and decelerates, and so on.

And while he is playing with the fundamental unit of a music


based on real mathematics, the stroke, he will be realising that
the cave’s acoustics enrich the instrument, adding a range of
musically interesting acoustic phenomena to explore.
The Shape of a Sound

Before we can master the fine control necessary to use a pen


for writing or sketching we hone our skills by drawing simple
shapes and patterns. Similarly, before using the theremin in a
musical way we can hone our skills playfully by emulating
familiar sounds that vary in pitch and volume in simple and
well defined ways. In this way we will build up a palette of
moves for the pitch hand and the volume hand which can be
combined in various ways to create a broad palette of sounds
for the player to draw upon.

Examples of suitable familiar sounds might be the call of a


seagull, a mewling cat or the howl of a wolf, a wolf-whistle or
the whistle used to hail a cab, a Doppler-shifting train whistle
or a police car siren. We will consider the police siren in detail.

The police siren is constant in volume, so the volume hand


should stay at a constant distance from the loop. The pitch,
however, varies sinusoidally, which is to say that the hand
should slow down as it approaches the highest and lowest pitch
of the sound, and speed up as it moves towards the middle
pitch. This is difficult to achieve evenly and consistently just
moving the hand to the left and right – towards and away from
the pitch rod, so we shall take advantage of the fact that
vertical movements of the pitch hand have a negligible effect
on the pitch, and apply some simple trigonometry.

By describing small circles with the pitch hand at a constant


speed (at first you may care to try this while actually holding a
pencil and imagining drawing on an upright board – I found it
helped) we know from trigonometry that the horizontal
component will vary sinusoidally, which is just what is required.
From a synthesizer point of view we can think of this wrist
movement as being a low frequency oscillator generating a sine
wave to modulate the pitch. Moving the hand just left and
right at a constant speed would approximate a triangle wave.

As a stroke it is useful to think of the circle as composed of


four simpler strokes, each a quarter arc. Assuming a clockwise
motion and a right handed player, the first quarter arc – from
12 o’clock to 3 o’clock – would be a rising, decelerating pitch,
from 3 to 6 would be a falling, accelerating pitch, from 6 to 9 a
falling, decelerating pitch and from 9 to 12 a rising, accelerating
pitch. These and other simple strokes can be combined in
different ways to create a range of more complex strokes. The
simplest stroke is one with no variation in pitch, corresponding
to a note.

We could also create a more complex stroke by adding another


low frequency oscillator at the elbow, moving the pitch up and
down slowly and over a wider range of frequencies at the same
time as we describe small circles with the wrist. We might liken
this to the sound of a police siren as the sound is Doppler-
shifted as it drives around a roundabout.

To increase the complexity again we might add a third LFO,


this time tighter and faster to give a vibrato effect. This we do
with a rapid twisting movement of the forearm, as if trying to
wriggle loose a key stuck in a lock, holding it with the thumb
and forefinger. Keeping the other fingers loose and relaxed will
damp the acceleration at the ends of the twist, making it more
sinusoidal and less triangular. For a more triangular vibrato one
might use a quick left and right motion, as if polishing a coin
with a cotton bud. For a random vibrato one can wriggle the
fingers about rapidly.
One can apply a low frequency oscillator with the volume hand
in the same way. If both hands move identically the two
oscillators will be 90º out of phase as with the volume loop it is
the vertical component that is significant, and we will hear only
the falling portion of the sound (for a right–hander and
clockwise circles.) Moving to a different phase is possible, by
increasing the speed of one hand for a while, as is rotating one
hand at a multiple of the speed of the other. This can be tricky
at first and while the ability to pat one’s head and rub one’s
stomach at the same time is not a prerequisite, it helps.

More commonly, however, the volume hand functions as a


manual expression pedal, played above the loop, and using the
flat of the hand to vary the volume throughout a phrase. It is
possible to punctuate phrases by briefly punching the finger
tips into the loop and out again, and this suggests another way
of considering the volume hand, as an envelope generator,
another synthesizer component.

For a particularly sharp attack play from the side of the loop
where the field is tightest, with the back of the fingers to the
loop and then snap them smartly away, curling the fingers and
bending the wrist at the same time to create a plucked sound.
The pitch field should be as small as possible. The opposite of
this, the slow attack and fast release familiar as a “reversed
tape” sound is better done above the loop to avoid jogging the
theremin. These techniques were devised by Pamelia Kurstin.

For a rapid tremolo, point the fingertips towards the edge of


the loop, hand horizontal, and, moving the hand only, flick the
fingers above and below the loop, taking advantage of the
loop’s symmetry. Moving the hand close to the loop gives an
effect reminiscent of a mandolin.
A Portable Cave

As it is not always convenient to perform in a cave we can use


the electronic equivalents, reverbs and delays, to similar effect.
This seems entirely appropriate for an electronic instrument.
They are available in a variety of forms. We will consider the
simplest and most economical, the guitar effects pedal.

Without a little reverb the theremin can sound very artificial.


The subtle use of reverb adds richness to the sound and makes
it more natural. The excessive use of reverb, coupled with a
random vibrato, gives a smooth cluster drone with an aeolian
quality to it. This effect can be increased by the use of one or
more delay pedals, with delay times which are not in simple
ratio to one another, to avoid building up a rhythm.

Uses of an echo pedal can be broadly divided into several


categories. With strokes that are longer than the duration of
the delay we are looking at layering up the sound. With strokes
of fixed pitch (a note) this thickens the sound and stabilizes the
note by averaging out miniscule variations in pitch, as rather
than wandering in pitch the sound phases organically as the
variations in pitch cause constructive and destructive
interference. With a slow stroke of constant speed the phasing
becomes a rapid beating or tremolo, akin to the celesete stop
on an organ. As the speed of a stroke increases so the
separation between the pitch and its delayed copies becomes
larger and the sound opens out into several distinct tones.

These properties can be useful during practice, as phasing


makes smaller changes in pitch more apparent while holding a
long note, and a stroke of constant speed will yield evenly
spaced beats.
When the delay is longer than the strokes played within it the
strokes are repeated periodically and add a rhythmic content to
the music. Coupling this with rhythmic playing at a speed in
simple ratio to the length of the delay, allows chords and
arpeggios to be constructed and developed over time.

Again, longer delays have a use during practice. When


developing a combination of pitch and volume hand
movements into a compound stroke it is useful to get the
immediate feedback offered by a long echo.

Very short delays, on the order of a few milliseconds, and with


a lot of feedback, turn an echo pedal into a resonant comb
filter, resonating on a low frequency and on multiples of that
frequency. This introduces an element of consonance into the
music, as an overtone series such as this is highly consonant.
The precise effect will vary from delay pedal to delay pedal, but
in general some frequencies will resonate as a stroke passes
through them, causing a note to be sustained within the pedal.
The duration of the note will depend in part on the ability of
the pedal to exactly repeat the waveform, so a digital delay
with an option to repeat without filtering or otherwise
changing the waveform is preferable, as is a pedal which offers
very close to 100% feedback.

A ping-pong or multi-tap delay gives the opportunity to add an


element of stereo to the performance, or to modify one of the
outputs with another delay, or any other effects pedal, before
recombining the two signals with a mixer.

Some guitar effects pedals can be overwhelmed by the strength


of theremin output. A simple solution is to attenuate the signal
with an inexpensive low impedance inline volume pedal.
A Second Voice

Theremins are single voice instruments. Delays provide a form


of pseudo-polyphony. Another way of increasing the number of
voices is by using a pitch shifter or whammy pedal. As with
delays, shifters offer different facilities, based on generating a
new tone at a fixed or variable interval from the original. Its
timbre is an approximation to the timbre of the original signal.

Just as the concept of being “in tune” does not apply to a


stroke of varying pitch as it applies to a note, so a constant
interval between two pitches can be harmonic or otherwise,
but the concept does not apply to a variable interval, which
requires use of a treadle to control the interval whilst playing.

Operating a treadle, such as a whammy pedal or an expression


pedal connected to a pitch shifter (or a wah pedal – incidentally
another useful addition to the theremin, giving the facility to
control the timbre, as well as the pitch and volume, in real
time) requires the Tai Chi stance. The treadle is operated with
the foremost foot, the one corresponding to the pitch hand.
The hinge of the treadle should be in line with the tibia to
minimise body motion induced by rocking the foot, and the
device should be robust enough to operate smoothly with the
player’s weight on it.

Some pedals offer separate outputs for the two tones. This
allows different delays to be applied to the two tones, for
example. Other facilities can include a feedback loop to
generate multiple additional voices, and harmonizing, which
presumes a tuned instrument, and in a continuous pitch
instrument has the effect of quantizing the pitch, turning the
theremin into an air harp.
Frothatrills and Twangulators

The capacitive fields of the theremin offer an opportunity for a


unique form of effect. Rather than modifying the audio output
of the theremin in the effects chain, we can introduce devices
other than our hands into the fields; electromechanical effect
devices that can affect the fields in ways not possible by hand.

A Frothatrill is an electromechanical LFO, oscillating faster


than the hand can move. A simple frothatrill can be
constructed from a hand-held, battery powered milk frother,
with a short length of wire tangled into the whisk, one end
jutting out like a single propellor blade. Orienting the frother
so that the blade moves towards and away from the pitch rod
creates a rapid, even vibrato akin to the trilling of the mogwai
Gizmo in the film Gremlins.

By strapping a long steel ruler by one end to the top of a dining


chair and positioning the other end under the volume loop one
constructs a Twangulator. This modulates the volume
distinctively. It can be operated by tapping at its resonant
frequency, or by twanging, like a ruler on a school desk.

The bacchetta di intervalli or Inter val Wand causes an


instantaneous change in pitch. It is a screwdriver, around 40cm
long with an insulated handle, held in the pitch hand. It is
operated by touching the metal stem with the index finger. The
interval varies with the wand’s orientation to the pitch rod.

Although not an electromagnetic effect, I also mention here


the Articulation Regulator; historically a forerunner of the
volume loop. It is a handheld kill switch (press to break button)
in the audio cable, giving an instantaneous attack or release.
Panic Box and Whistle Pig

The ring modulator or amplitude modulator, like the theremin


and the delay, dates to the earliest electronic music. There is an
appropriateness to its use with a theremin, as the process of
creating an audible tone from the beat frequencies in the
difference between two RF oscillators, heterodyning, is identical.

I use a custom built active two input ring modulator which I


call the Panic Box, after Pan, the god of rustic music. The
modulated output is passed through an adjustable low pass
filter with adjustable resonance, called the Whistle Pig (even
though it does not self-oscillate) which also provides mixing
facilities between the two dry inputs and the wet output.

The Panic Box can be fed by the wet and dry outputs of a pitch
shifter, which gives a familiar ring-mod tone to the sound, or,
more interestingly, it can be fed by a ping-pong delay.

A ring modulator’s output is the sum and difference of its


inputs – two new sounds, different from but related
mathematically to the input sounds. The sound which is the
sum of the inputs has a pitch half way between the inputs, and
an octave higher. The difference of the sounds has a pitch
lower than either, and it is this that is interesting: when fed by
the delay it acts as a difference engine – a steady input tone to the
delay produces silence, a steadily rising tone produces a
constant tone, a steadily accelerating tone produces a steadily
rising tone, a sinusoidally varying tone produces another, 90º
out of phase with the first, and so on.

The sounds produced are, in some ways, akin to those


described in the Futurist manifesto The Art Of Noises.
Painting Narrative Soundscapes

The inspiration for any music, whether at the conscious level


or not, is the sounds we hear. So first, listen! Listen intently to
the sounds around you as you might a new CD or a concert,
hearing everything. Consider, for example, a train journey.

It starts with the click of a door lock, and continues with quiet
footfalls down an empty street accompanied by the distant
drone of cars on a main road and intermittent bird song. And
then the complex pattern of rhythms, the hisses, clunks,
swooshes and screeches of an underground train pulling into a
station, random snippets of libretto – a young female voice
saying “I was sooooooo drunk,” brief bursts of incongruous
melody from mobile phones and the tinny hiss of an iPod’s
earpieces cut short by the sudden blare of a horn, the echoing
patter of two hundred or more shoes ascending a stone
staircase. And so on.

Next, configure your instrument. For a celebration of


machinery and velocity, a journey down into the underbelly of
the dark metropolis such as this, I would consider a ping-pong
and Panic Box combination, and look to produce sounds
evocative, if not directly imitative, of those I heard.

Finally, apply your strokes with certainty, playing the song of


this journey with confidence and simplicity and control. Invoke
the feeling and impressions it inspired in you, and while the
sounds will undoubtedly be aleatoric to some extent, your task
is to imbue it with sense, so be mindful of the mnemonic; A
Completely Random Output Never Yields Meaning.

Enjoy your music and set yourself high standards. Now play…
Afterword

Had this document been written eighty years ago it would


doubtless have proclaimed the birth of a revolutionary new
musical form, dismissing earlier forms as old, tired and
predictable. But we live in less idealistic times, and the truth is
that there is nothing new under the sun, and other forms of
music are not the enemy, so it was written primarily for my
own benefit; to consolidate some of what I have learned and
discovered over the last few years. Nonetheless, it would be a
vanity to presume that I am unique in all the world in my view
of the theremin and of music in general, so I make it freely
available on the Internet in the hope that it might reach those
of a like mind.

Does it work? I do not know. The appreciation of music is


subjective, so a better question is, does it work for you? It
might very well not. A large portion of musical appreciation is
familiarity, so it may be that this is an acquired taste, and one
that you prefer not to acquire at that. But it works for me, the
results have a hand-made, immediate quality that I appreciate,
and I feel I have made steps toward achieving my goal.

To judge for yourself I invite you to listen to the album The


Chordless Chord by Beat Frequency, which is my first attempt
to put the principles and techniques described here into
practice. The album is available online at the iTunes store.

Better still, try these ideas out. I strongly believe that the best
way to learn is by exploration and experimentation, and by
building on what has gone before.
This work is published under a Creative Commons licence, Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0
by Gordon Charlton, 2008. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/3.0/